Many prominent members of the sizeable and active Mandriva community decided to fork their own reactionary version of the distribution, after becoming disgruntled with the company's decisions with recent releases, and growing concern from the Linux world that the distribution could disappear if the company collapsed.
Thankfully, Mandriva was saved from imminent failure after a corporate buyout; though the development was bittersweet as the company went on to shed a large number of talented staff.
Frankly, it came as no surprise that it missed a release or two in 2009, and when we reviewed Mandriva 2010 Spring in LXF136, it was equally unsurprising that Mandriva didn't unveil any swanky new features to take on rivals such as Ubuntu, Fedora and OpenSUSE.
So, what's changed and can Mandriva now start to make some headway? The good news is that 2011.0 introduces some cool new features that indicate the distribution is still in active development, and that future releases will be very promising indeed.
The bad news, though, is that a lot of features that attract new users to distributions, such as app store-style package managers, are still under heavy development and simply aren't ready for prime-time. As you wade through the documentation and the company website you'll also see the word 'experimental' used a lot more liberally than normal, and a new bug reporting app running by default on desktop systems.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though. We said a year ago that the one thing missing from Mandriva releases was clever new ideas and innovations, and it's great to see that the project is trying new things and being every bit as ambitious as it was before its recent turmoil.
Despite this, we do still want a new Mandriva package manager that's stable enough to be bundled with the distribution: 2011.0 feels distinctly unfinished without it and its inclusion would go a long way towards increasing support from both developers and end users.
Features at a Glance
If your grandmother can't make use of the first pane of the Simple Start menu, we'll eat our own feet.
Dolphin File Manager
The simplified Dolphin file manager will no doubt upset power users, but could be a boon for newbies.
Quickly and easily snap up your files and downloads from the taskbar.
The most immediate change you'll notice when you first try to install Mandriva is that it comes with a brand new graphical installer. It's still not quite as polished as installers from the likes of Ubuntu and OpenSUSE but it's a vast improvement on previous efforts, which tended to be a little clunky and complicated.
Once your Mandriva system is installed, you'll notice a large number of changes that have been made to KDE 4 to make Mandriva friendlier. The new Simple Start menu clearly takes more than a little inspiration from Gnome Shell and Ubuntu's Unity interface and is an improvement on the KDE 4 launcher tweaks we've seen in previous releases.
One thing you shouldn't miss is the Timeline option on this same menu. This is actually Nepomuk cunningly hidden behind an attractive interface. The timeline also groups documents and media together in a visual way so documents you've created are just a few clicks away.
Further enhancements to the taskbar include a general reshuffling of icons and new folding drawers for your documents and downloads folder towards the bottom-right of the screen. The developers have also simplified the Dolphin interface to better cater for Mandriva's traditionally newbie audience.
However, 2011.0 isn't simply about user interface improvements. As with other major distributions Mandriva has made the switch from OpenOffice.org (no longer in active development by Oracle) to LibreOffice and now uses Shotwell as its default photo manager. The Linux kernel. Firefox and X.org versions were a little behind mainstream rivals at the time of writing.
Something that every user may be able to benefit from however is MandrivaSync, a cloud service that provides users with free cloud storage space to sync files between Mandriva machines (in a not dissimilar fashion to Ubuntu One).
Beyond the technical improvements. Mandriva is also adopting a new business strategy. As mentioned, sales of Mandriva PowerPack and Mandriva lnstantOn were struggling because end users simply didn't purchase either product in any great quantity.
The focus now is on the more lucrative enterprise market with the promotion of a server distribution and bespoke network management tools.
This initially seems like a very shrewd move when you consider Linux relative success in this arena, but it's also important to bear in mind that this market is already heavily dominated by Novell, Red Hat and Debian. All have much better integration with Microsoft-centric services such as ActiveDirectory and Exchange, in both their server and desktop editions, which are also important elements in the minds of network administrators. Mandriva’s enterprise software, then, could be a tough sell, but we wait with bated breath to see how it turns out. Of course, if all else fails, they could just resort to selling USB pen drives and commercial Linux software.
There's a lot to like about Mandriva 2011.0. The user interface has been tweaked and simplified, documentation and supporting services have continued to improve and clever ideas such as Timeline make it well worth experimenting with - at the very least by enthusiasts with virtual machines.
If you're a dedicated Mandriva tan who has stuck with the distro through thick and thin, this is certainly worth the upgrade (if you're not too attached to older tools). New users will also feel at home with the system despite some of its odder quirks.
However, there are still important elements under development, which means that it lacks the polish we've grown to expect from rival systems. This, then, is perhaps best viewed as an interim product. We eagerly await the release that pulls all these new ideas and features into one neat solution that finally starts to deliver.